Depression and other mental health conditions in adolescents are becoming increasingly common and can be a significant source of suffering and family stress. What relationship does digital media use have with depressive disorders in youth? What are the risk factors for developing depression, and what prevention and intervention strategies can parents, caregivers, educators, and clinicians employ to help children experiencing or at risk of depression?
Join us on Wednesday, October 18 from 12pm-1:30pm ET for our “Ask The Experts” webinar “Depression: Youth Mental Health and Digital Media,” the second in a set of webinars investigating common mental health struggles facing youth today. A panel of clinical psychologists, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and other experts in depressive disorders will share clinical insights and current research on depression in youth, how digital media use may be affecting it, and tips on how caregivers can support children who may be dealing with or at risk of depression.
Mitch Prinstein, PhD, ABPPChief Science Officer, American Psychological AssociationModerator
Vicki Harrison, MSWProgram Director, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine
Anne Maheux, PhDAssistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Winston Family Distinguished Fellow, Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain, and Psychological Development
Janis Whitlock, PhDScientist Emerita, Cornell University; Founder and Director, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery
Lizzy Winstone, PhDPopulation Health Sciences, University of Bristol, UK
[Kris Perry] Hello and welcome to our Ask the Experts webinar Depression, Youth Mental Health and Digital Media. The second in a set of webinars investigating common mental health struggles facing youth today. I am Kris Perry, executive director of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. We know that we are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. According to data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children and adolescents with depression and anxiety rose almost 30% from 2016 to 2020 before the pandemic even began. Those numbers have only risen more in recent years. While our previous webinar delved into anxiety, today’s webinar will be focused on depression to consider what relationship does digital media use have with depressive disorders and youth. To answer this question and more, we have brought together an expert panel of clinical psychologists, child and adolescent psychiatrists and other experts in depressive disorders. Together, they will share thoughts and insights into current research on depression and youth, how digital media use may be related, and tips on how caregivers can support children who may be dealing with or at risk of depression. During the webinar, panelists will also discuss sensitive and difficult topics such as self-harm and suicide. Through their presentations and discussion, the panel will answer as many questions as possible in the time we have together today. We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Mitch Grinstein to moderate today’s session. Mitch is the Chief Science officer of the American Psychological Association, where he is responsible for leading the Association’s science agenda and advocating for the application of psychological research and knowledge in settings including academia, government, industry and the law. He is also a board certified clinical psychologist, distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the co-director of the Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development. He has studied child and adolescent mental health for over 25 years with a specific focus on the unique role of on and off line peer relationships in the developmental psychopathology of depression and self-injury. Welcome, Mitch.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you so much. Thanks for focusing on this really important topic during today’s program. And thanks to everybody who is participating together. I just wanted to briefly start off by reminding us that in the span of just one generation, we have moved from interactions among young people looking like this to this, to this. And this is important because we know from extensive research that social interaction, adaptive social behaviors and the opportunity to have meaningful emotionally disclosing relationships with others are important protective factors against depression, particularly in the context of stress. And we sure have a lot of stress that kids are experiencing these days. But there’s so much information out there about the role of digital media, it’s important to remind folks that not all research that shows an association necessarily indicates a cause and effect relationship. It’s important to recognize that we need top science, like what you’ll be hearing about today in this webinar to really carefully explain the ways in which digital media may be related to symptoms. Tech changes very fast and research is slow to do, but the information that you’re going to hear today is going to be exciting late breaking information about what it is that folks are learning about this important link. This is a complex relationship. We know that there are many ways that we might see depression being associated with digital media use, including the ways in which mood might affect what teens choose to do online, what time they go online, what platforms they might engage in.
We know that tech could provide soothing or coping experiences or opportunities for social support, or it can even help kids experiencing psychopathology, develop skills or have other compensatory benefits. We know as well that teens may use digital media in ways that could relate to the onset of depressive symptoms, or it may take away opportunities that would otherwise have protected them from developing depressive symptoms. In short, the research in this area is continuing to suggest that there’s a combination of who a child is that interacts with what specific kinds of digital media activities and platforms they engage in that might be most important to understand any particular outcome. So a resilient adolescent who uses digital media to chat with their friends and talk about the news might be fine. However, someone that’s experiencing social or psychological vulnerabilities and engages with the most harmful or addictive or concerning stimuli on digital media might have a much worse outcome. Today, we’re going to hear a deep dive on some of the ways in which specific conditions within digital media might interact with specific groups of children and specific features or content on social media to help child development or potentially to lead to harm. I’m so excited to be asked to moderate this panel because it’s quite an all star amazing panel of researchers, beginning with Dr. Lizzie Winstone, who’s a senior research associate at the University of Bristol, is currently working on an epidemiological study on self-harm, thoughts and behaviors. Her research interests include young people’s social media use and mental health, wellbeing and social connectedness, and is particularly interested in how young people engage with different types of online activities, with digital stress, and with the role of exposure to distressing content in mental health. So excited to hear your comments, Dr. Winstone.
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Thanks very much. I will share my screen now. So I should start by giving a bit of a trigger warning first because I will be talking about self harm in these slides. So in the following few minutes, I’m going to first talk about some issues relating to social media use for young people with preexisting mental health conditions. I’ll then be looking in more detail at issues relating specifically to self-harm content online. And finally, we’ll have a think about how we might improve resilience to digital harms through social media literacy. So we know that social media can present specific risks and opportunities depending on all sorts of factors, including an individual’s social and emotional circumstances. And the following points come from a recent systematic review of the evidence on the role of digital experiences for young people with preexisting mental health conditions. So first of all, seeking social connection online is a common motivation for most people to use social media. But for those who might be struggling with their mental health, online forums and peer feedback can be a really important source of support. For those who self-harm however, there can be a risk of self-harm getting normalized through discussions on these forums, a risk that people can learn about new methods of self-harm and a risk of being inadvertently exposed to triggering material, which is something I’ll talk about more in a moment. Some young people have also reported their online help seeking behavior, so sharing their struggles on social media to have been perceived by peers as attention seeking, which can then carry a risk of being bullied or being ostracized from the peer group. Secondly, passive social media use, so that’s listening to music, watching videos, etc. is commonly reported as a form of coping with distress or self-harm urges by means of a kind of temporary distraction or escape. Third of all, in common with most young people. social media can be used to elicit social validation, so feeling validated when your picture receives likes, views or shares. This can sometimes lead to risky sharing practices, so sharing sexually suggestive or graphic content, for example. There can also be pressure to appear happy or kind of quiet upfront in content that you share online. And this can really feel exhausting for users with depression. When posts don’t receive positive feedback, young people with depression may also be more likely to internalize this, which can then further exacerbate those negative emotions or poor self-esteem. Fourth, cyberbullying has been associated with multiple negative outcomes, including self-harm, and this is an issue for many young people quite similar to in-person bullying. And finally, evidence suggests that many young people, but especially those with mental health difficulties, can struggle to self-regulate their social media use, sometimes describing themselves as feeling addicted. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that those with depression may also be more inclined to ruminate, some of them to overestimate their own screen time. So thinking in more detail now about self-harm related content, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that those who seek help online frequently report stumbling across harmful material relating to self-harm or eating disorders or depression. And this unintentional exposure can really be quite distressing and triggering. So one of the issues with this is to do with algorithms. So the way that social media algorithms work is that any engagement with this kind of content can kind of spiral into further exposure. Sending young people down the rabbit hole and pushing increasingly extreme content onto the user and for those of you who aren’t sure what I mean by that, social media algorithms, these kind of rules that platforms use to prioritize the kind of content users receive in order to keep them interested and to stay on the platform for longer. So if a user stumbles across that harmful content and then engages with it by following an account or liking, commenting or sharing this material, that can quickly then lead to more of similar content being suggested to them. And I think this is something that young social media users often don’t really fully understand. And I think that’s a key area where we might improve. So another recent review has focused on the impacts of viewing self-harm related content, and they found both protective and harmful effects of this, but concluded that the evidence of harms outweighs the positives. So first of all, when we talk about protective effects, these include where young people might view self-harm images as an alternative to engage in self-harm acts, the self-harm community online and case lots of recovery focused material and accounts and then engaging with this online community can encourage feelings of social connection and can also provide opportunities to offer support to others. When harmful effects identified in review included escalation of self-harm, so that can include reinforcement through things like commenting on or sharing images. Viewing images can encourage social comparison, so comparing your own self-harm with others, which can then lead to feelings of competition for more severe injuries and viewing images can also support development of a self-harm identity which can then reinforce behavior. So let’s turn then to resilience. So how can we support young people to be more resilient to these risks? In my view, an essential factor in this is social media literacy. So we really need to be equipping young people with the tools they need to use social media safely and positively and research into social media literacy and mental health is lacking, but there is some evidence that literacy can support users to mitigate various risks, such as minimizing risks to privacy by balancing that need or desire to share with the need to control. And in terms of what I focused on in the previous slides, some studies suggest that media literate users are less likely to be exposed to harmful content because they have better control over what they choose to view online because they’re more likely to follow friends and strangers and so on. They’re also less likely to pay attention to harmful content because they tend to have a better understanding of the potential negative impact of that. So what do we mean when we talk about social media literacy? So we’re talking about those key skills and competencies that are needed to navigate social media safely, but also to thrive online. So here in the UK, children and young people are supposed to receive lessons in school which cover issues such as self-image and identity online, online relationships, online reputation, cyberbullying, managing online information, so understanding things like fake news. Health, wellbeing and lifestyle, so things like fitness apps and screen time privacy and security and copyright. And I think where we fall down here at least, is in equipping young people to navigate those social media algorithms we talked about. So going forward, I feel this could be a real focus for schools and parents and caregivers and getting to grips with how algorithms work to shape the content that we see online. So just to summarize this whistlestop tool, we know that young people with poor mental health can be vulnerable to harm on social media, and they stimulate specific, creative, engaging with cell phone content online, which can be triggering, which can reinforce self-harm through lights, comments, etc. can lead to comparison and competition with others in terms of self-harm, severity and can support development of a self-harm, identity. And one avenue for improving resilience is developing social media literacy skills. So getting to grips with some of those key issues around online comparison, cyberbullying, self regulation, privacy settings and so on, but also introducing it and understanding of the role of algorithms and developing skills in how to navigate those algorithms to have better control over the sort of content that you’re exposed to. And that’s all for me. Thank you very much.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you so much. That was fantastic. I wanted to ask you one question that we got from viewers. What do you know about the ways in which kids who are already engaging in self-harm activities may be self-selecting into negative content potentially? And how would you respond to critiques that that social media companies, you know, are merely providing a resource for people to look at whatever content they choose rather than kind of pushing that content onto vulnerable youth?
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Well, in terms of the responsibilities of social media companies, I think one of the problems is that the kind of architecture of social media platforms in their kind of marketing strategy that obviously geared towards profit, you know, everything’s about how to keep a user on the platform for as long as possible. And I think that can be really problematic for young users who lack skills and things like self-regulation. There are organizations such as Five Rights Foundation and Design it for Us in the US, which campaign to those social media companies to make design decisions with children’s best interests at the forefront and in the UK here we have the new online safety bill, which will require that social media companies are not expected to remove illegal content, and that includes content that can promote self-harm, but also make much more efforst in preventing children from accessing harmful content, enforcing age limits and publishing things like risk assessments about the risks to children on social media.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] That makes great sense.
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Yeah, there are some really positive things going on from a policy perspective, but I think as parents and as educators, we can really focus on kind of empowering young people to be able to have better control over what they see online and not only use social media safely, but also really kind of thrive and flourish online as well.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you. Any quick example of how to navigate the algorithms?
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Well, it’s something that I think is a real knowledge gap, I think young people kind of have a decent grasp of algorithms from a kind of computer science perspective, but maybe lack that understanding of the way that their own social media use kind of shapes those algorithms, which in turn shapes the content that they’re exposed to, I think there’s a gap of research in the area as well. It’s something that I’m particularly interested in going forward, how to kind of harness and manipulate the algorithms to work in a more positive way for ourselves rather than just as a kind of profit making tool for the companies. But for me, it’s about kind of searching for lots of entertaining videos and content online, you know, funny cat videos. And the more you engage with that kind of content and positive content, the more you will be exposed to that kind of content.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] That’s terrific. Thank you so much. I’m so excited to next introduce Vicki Harrison, who has 25 years of experience working with public health, education and mental health sectors, developing innovative community based programs at the local, state and national levels. As program director of Stanford’s Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, she develops and implements a portfolio of projects promoting early intervention and increased access to mental health services and support for young people. These include Alcove, a first of its kind integrated youth mental health model in the US, as well as hashtag Good for MEdia, a youth driven peer mentoring program focused on social media and youth mental health and Stanford Psychiatry’s Media and Mental Health Initiative partnering with the media, mental health and technology sectors to enhance the positive impacts of media on youth mental health and wellbeing. Welcome, Vicki.
[Vicki Harrison] Thank you so much, Mitch. It’s great to be here and we just get this set up. So I’m going to be talking about this phenomena of media contagion and how media portrayals might influence behavior. And so as Mitch mentioned, I work with our Media Mental Health Initiative in Stanford Psychiatry. We really focus on young people 12 to 25 and look at ways that we can really use the media’s influence in young people’s lives for positive mental health effect versus more harmful effect. And one of the things that is of high prevalence for young people is risk for suicide. It’s now the second leading cause of death for 10 to 14 year olds and 15 to 24 year olds, it’s the third cause just after unintentional injury and homicide. Almost a quarter of high school students reported making seriously considering suicide in the past year. And so significant numbers there. And the CDC recently put out preliminary data showing that more people have now died by suicide than ever before in their reporting. So as we look to see how we can bring those numbers down, we see media as a potential factor that we can kind of move the needle on. And so when we talk about contagion, this effect that I’m talking about, what does that really mean? And it really is the same thing that we talk about when we talk about a virus or some sort of pathogen. It’s something that can be spread from one person to another. It’s just in this instance, it’s more emotion or behavior that we’re talking about it as being contagious. And it appears that that can work in the same way, whether positive or harmful. And so for suicide contagion we’re talking about when observing suicide behaviors or self-harm behaviors of one or more people influences others to then engage in similar behavior. So the impact that media has on suicide has been kind of characterized as this Werther effect based on the sorrows of young Werther, which was popular media back in the 1700s, where a protagonist died by suicide, and there was an observed number of deaths following that in the general population. And that’s been played out over the past many decades. And the higher the prevalence of that portrayal and the more attention that story gets, the more that that effect seems to take hold. The good news is that the opposite effect has also been observed. So when stories of resilience and hope and resources are spread, that can also have a positive effect. So sometimes people call that the Papageno effect, after Mozart’s The Magic Flute. So what might explain this effect? You know, it is a little bit of a mystery in some ways, but I think that what the what most of us are thinking about when we look at the research and the psychology behind it, is that it’s probably some sort of social learning theory combined with other risk factors and variables for someone who’s experiencing this effect. So the closer they are to the individual whose behavior they’re observing, the more intense the exposure to that, the more the effect. And we are mostly concerned about, quote unquote, at risk or vulnerable young people and people in general when we talk about this. So they might be kind of identifying with the individual, especially if it’s a celebrity or someone very well known.
And then the more that this is publicized, the more it becomes a script of something that’s like a common reaction to having suicidal thoughts. And this effect is unfortunately very strong in adolescents where they’re very, very open to peer influence. Madeleine Gould from Columbia did a seminal study on suicide clusters in 2014 where she looked at suicide clusters across the U.S. and found that newspaper coverage of suicide was significantly associated with those clusters and that that was 2 to 4 times more common among adolescents and young adults.
Some of the characteristics that the stories that she looked at shared were front page placement, lots of sensational headlines, description of the methods, and that the suicide pictures and detailed descriptions of the individual. Some other examples in recent pop culture. Robin Williams when he died in 2014, an excess of 1841 suicides was observed and they observed that in men who also were dying by the same method, which sort of seems to imply an association, and also the controversial show from Netflix. 13 Reasons Why. There was this study by Niederkrotentheler that showed that there was about 100 more suicides observed in the three months following the first season and that it seems to be consistent with that concept of contagion. On a good note, the hip hop artist Logic, his song, which actually was the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, he sang that song at the MTV Video Music Awards at the Grammy Awards and released a video, and there was an excess of almost 10,000 calls to the lifeline and it also showed a drop in the corresponding model of suicide that would have been projected during that time. So that is a strong example of how that positive effect can help people actually seek help and the suicide rate potentially decrease. A compelling example from Vienna in the eighties where they had just implemented a new subway system. A lot of people were dying by suicide using that method. And the media was really covering this very sensationally and dramatically. And so some folks got together to try to implement some protections around that. They implemented some guidelines. And by doing these media guidelines, they saw a dramatic decrease of 80% in attempts and deaths on the on the subway. So there are guidelines that exist, you know, hoping for that same effect for journalists and content producers. And they have them produced for most Western countries have them, as well as the World Health Organization has put out some. This slide is from the reporting on suicide.org website and really they kind of cover the same things that were observed in the research study, which is where you don’t want to include details, you don’t want to sensationalize, you don’t want to speculate as to reasons behind a death. Unfortunately, these are not followed very consistently within our very saturated media culture. So they’re frequently violated. But it is something that I know our team works a lot with journalists to try to help them understand the nuance and the importance behind this. And you’re training around that. These are some examples of some of the more recent tools that are out there. The Tempo tool was a ten point checklist. Chat Safe is one that has come out of origin in Australia, which is one of the only ones that really look specifically at a digital social media context. So it’s really designed, it was designed with young people and it’s really specific to social media chatting and texting and online commenting, which we need a lot more of. So in summary, I think this is a pretty, you know, nuanced, complicated phenomena, contagion, and we really need to understand it better, especially in a social media context. So I think we need a lot more research and study of that and also for people to understand that this is really a thing. And as we are all content creators now, it’s not just journalists who are putting out content. Most of what we consume is really from friends, peers, strangers. So having us all understand this phenomenon, what we can do to kind of minimize our reactions online could have a very positive effect in minimizing that potential contagion, especially for young people and vulnerable people out there. And so hopefully we can do some more in that area. So I look forward to questions from Mitch and others.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein ]Thank you so much, Vicki. That was fantastic. Given how much kids are being exposed to content that can be so triggering, as you say, what is the role for peers, either a peer support or peer led initiatives to really help the kids cope with that content when they see it?
[Vicki Harrison] Yeah, well, I mean, I think that peers have a very strong impact on young people, as we’ve all seen, and I think that to really kind of get ahead of this contagion issue, I do think it needs to become like a norm. So I think peers and others need to really, you know, just start doing the behaviors that we want to see.
And hopefully then they will observe that from their other peers or people that they look up to. And I also think that when it comes to just sort of general behavioral habits that we’re looking to improve on social media and just help navigate social media, that looking to peers is one of the best tactics we have. We’ve actually started a program, the Good for MEdia program, that you got the pun from. That is actually a peer to peer program that we have where we have older teens and young adults who have navigated social media, sharing their strategies with younger teens and tweens who are just getting into the environment. And, you know, it makes much more impact than you or I or parents trying to impart some of these same tactics. So I think it’s a really strong tool that we have.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] That’s really helpful. What are some things that parents could do either in their own homes or, you know, to demand in concert with one another? You know, to really limit kids’ exposure to these kinds of messages that can be so damaging?
[Vicki Harrison] Yeah. I mean, I think just kind of being aware that there’s a lot of potentially harmful content out there and, you know, we don’t have it’s just easier to come across in a social media environment. And so being aware of that and really using your editing feature and not having to just absorb everything you’re seeing, but you can really curate your experience and to be more proactive in that. I think especially early users of social media kind of just are absorbing everything coming at them and they aren’t aren’t as skilled at proactively selecting or deselecting things and I think that’s a skill that we all need to develop. And so really focusing on that and choosing what you want to see and not want to see. And, you know, in times like right now when we have really graphic images coming across media from the war that just broke out, you know, it’s difficult for a lot of people and you don’t know what you’re going to see when you open up your feed. And so really kind of being deliberate about what you’re going on there for and how you can take care of yourself as you’re as you’re navigating it.
Dr. [Mitch Prinstein] That’s great advice. Thank you so much. Thank you. I’m thrilled to introduce our next speaker, Annie Maheux , who is an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the director of the Social Environments and Adolescents Lab. Her research focuses on sociocultural and technological influences on adolescent development, with an emphasis on gendered processes, intersections of gender, with other social identities and well-being. Welcome Annie.
[Dr. Annie Maheux] Thank you so much, Mitch and thank you to Children’s and Screens for having me here today. So today we are going to talk about both risk and resilience factors and specifically for marginalized youth in the digital context. So as mentioned, the other panelists, I think have already carefully highlighted. I think it’s important that we don’t think about digital media as something that’s all good or all bad, but really something that’s a very complex, double edged sword and it’s something that can exploit adolescents vulnerabilities, these vulnerabilities that are inherent in the adolescent developmental period, but also something that could potentially provide opportunities for thriving, for things like connection and access to resources or information. Marginalized and minoritized youth or those that have minority status in society. So this could be a numerical minority and or those who are afforded less power and or status in society. These youth often face barriers to wellness, but also youth from minoritized backgrounds have inherent resources and they’re able to thrive despite these challenges. And so minority stress theory provides this framework for us to think about the unique stressors that minority youth face. We know that challenging life circumstances can lead to experiences of stress and then negative mental health challenges for anyone and all youth. But then youth from minority status groups also experience external minority stressors. So this is something like discrimination and harassment, and youth who identify as a minority group member might also experience what we call internalized minority stressors. These are things like internalized negative attitudes towards one social group, things like internalized homo negativity or homophobia and all of these stressors can collectively contribute to negative mental health outcomes things like depression, suicidality, anxiety, disordered eating. And so what are the unique risks for minority youth online? Many of the risks are related to these external minority stressors things like victimization and online discrimination and the online environment can make these experiences worse than in the offline environment for a number of different reasons. The public nature of social and other digital media means that discriminatory experiences might have more perpetrators. They might have a wider audience which can make these experiences more stressful. And the 24/seven constant availability of digital media means that these experiences might be difficult to escape. They can feel or actually be ever present, unlike in in-person experiences. And because of things like Q absence and disinhibition, where people feel comfortable saying things online that they wouldn’t say to someone in person, these experiences can sometimes be more harsh or could be more extreme. And these algorithms that Lizzie mentioned are really intended to keep people hooked on the platforms. And this can sometimes mean providing more and more extreme and harsh content as a way of keeping people engaged in these discriminatory experiences can be experienced directly where one is the target of discrimination, but also the publicness of these online experiences mean that teens have more opportunities to witness discrimination and victimization, and they can experience it vicariously. And this is not cyberbullying. This isn’t just drama that happens online. This is exposure to hate, exposure to violence, exposure to potentially traumatizing content, including, for example, the violence and suffering in the Middle East that Vicki had mentioned. In a recent report from Common Sense Media indicated that 67% of Latino or Hispanic youth report sometimes or often encountering racist content online and 69% of black youth report the same thing. They also found that 68% of girls report sometimes or often encountering sexism online, and that 74% of girls encounter body shaming content often or sometimes online. And then finally, that 74% of LGBTQ plus youth who identify with that sexual or gender minority identity report sometimes or often encountering homophobic content online. This is three out of every four queer teens are experiencing these things sometimes or often. And a unique risk for especially LGBTQ plus teens is disclosing information online so we know that sexual and gender minority teens need opportunities to explore their identities, but they may also be at risk of sharing information privately that is then made public through these public digital platforms.
This can include being outed to those who they weren’t ready to tell about their sexual or gender identity And marginalization like this also puts youth at risk of potential exploitation. And this might be especially true for LGBTQ plus youth who maybe are seeking dating partners online. And in some of those situations that might put them at higher risk for things like coercion or violence or risks to their sexual health. But I think it’s really, really critical that we remember that marginalized youth do have strengths. They have resources, and digital media can provide opportunities for well-being and for thriving. And there’s actually a lot of emerging evidence about the potential benefits of digital contexts are especially beneficial, especially great for minority youth. And so in addition to these minority stressors, there are some critical resources that youth with minority identities can access.
This includes social resources, so things like social support and communities and friendships and also individual resources, things like coping skills. And these resources can moderate these links between general and minority stressors and mental health. And so although we need structural level solutions to things like structural barriers to mental well-being and structural stigma, it is also true that youth have access to these individual resources and they can experience resilience and resistance in the face of these minority stressors. So in the online context, this means that digital media offers these amazing opportunities to belong to a community, to experience connection with others, to be a part of something that’s greater than oneself and have this sense of purpose that’s really valuable for adolescents. And specifically for marginalized youth, these communities online can be a place to find others who have shared lived experiences and shared identities. They can find friendships or broader peer groups. And for queer teens, access to healthy and respectful dating partners can also be a huge benefit of digital media. And this is during a developmental period when dating initiation is often normative, it can promote well-being for many youth. And these digital communities have been referred to as third spaces, essentially a digital place where teens can go to be with others who have shared identities or experiences.
They can go there to be free from the psychological or physical threats related to things like discrimination, harassment, violence or isolation that they might experience in the offline world. And digital media can also provide information and tangible resources. So we know that all adolescents are exploring their identities. And for marginalized teens, digital spaces can offer information that can help teens learn about and integrate their identities. And digital resources can also offer accurate information. Not always, but sometimes they can offer information about personal health or sexual health and safety, for example, safety information or opportunities to process discrimination for youth of color who are exposed to images of police violence online for example. teens can also go online to see and hear stories of people who are living and thriving, who share their identities or have similar personal experiences. And it’s really the public nature of social media that makes this possible. Teens can access this information even if those people are not nearby and available in their offline worlds. For example, for many queer teens living in very rural areas. And because many marginalized youth belong to numerically small communities, the Internet also provides a way for teens to find others who actually are in their offline context. So people who are actually living nearby and they can create opportunities to connect with those people in the real world. And so in some, I think it’s really, really important that we consider both the risk and the resilience factors for marginalized youth to support their mental health and to support their thriving with risk factors, including things like hate speech, direct and vicarious discrimination and potential exploitation. But the resilience factor is being really, really important. Things like connection, community role models and access to information. Thank you.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Annie, thank you so much. That was fantastic. You know, particularly given the importance of attending to the populations that you’re talking about that are often unfortunately neglected by kind of one size fits all approaches, can you talk a little bit about when you talk about digital media kind of screen time in general versus, you know, platforms and other opportunities or forums that might be available via technology?
[Dr. Annie Maheux] Sure. So I think it’s really important that we think about screen time as not a monolith, right? Not all screen time is created equal and there are certain forms of accessing digital media, certain platforms or certain behaviors teens can engage in that promote well-being and others that don’t. And so I think it’s really not about screen time. It’s about these specific behaviors and specific subjective experiences. And one thing that our team here at USC has recently addressed is the role of online gaming as a really particular digital context. And although most of the research on gaming has focused on negative experiences that teens are having on on those platforms, things like gaming addiction or exposure to violence and links with aggression, we know that digital gaming is also a place where teens can go and be a part of a community, people who share their unique identities and experiences and also engage in really fun experiences, shared activities and play that can be really beneficial to well-being and can kind of promote both those individual coping skills as well as that sense of peer support and community.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] That’s really important. What do we know so far about gaming and are there differences by gender and how people use gaming to serve social functions?
[Dr. Annie Maheux] Yes, we don’t know much. It’s definitely an emerging area. It seems to be the case that gaming might have unique benefits for boys, and that may be in part because of the way that boys prefer larger peer groups and structured activities, things like in the offline world, sports can really translate well to digital gaming where they don’t have to engage in those kind of dyadic face to face exposure experiences At the same time, we know that for teens from marginalized backgrounds, digital gaming platforms can sometimes be an opportunity to be exposed to even more online hate or harassment. So queer and trans youth, cisgender girls, youth of minority racial ethnic groups may experience discrimination on those platforms. And so I think it’s really important for the research world and also for parents and educators to consider the potential benefits and the potential unique harms of that specific platform or any platform that a teen is accessing.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you so much for addressing these issues. That was fantastic. I’m excited next to introduce Dr. Janice Whitlock, who’s a developmental psychologist, researcher and consultant. She is Emerita research faculty at Cornell University and the founder and director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-injury and. She retired in 2022 so she could dedicate her time to actively supporting youth serving organizations, an effective application of her knowledge aimed at addressing the burgeoning mental health challenges that are faced by contemporary youth, families and communities.
As a senior advisor for the Jed Foundation and an independent consultant to a number of youth serving organizations, she speaks, writes, and conducts research in areas related to the relationship between technology use and youth well-being, connectedness, belonging, self-injury and suicide prevention. Janice is the author of numerous publications and two books, Healing Self-injury, A Compassionate Guide for Parents and Other Loved Ones, and the upcoming Oxford Handbook on Non Suicidal Self-injury. Welcome, Janice.
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] Thanks. It’s great to be here with all of you, and I really appreciate the invitation up here to present. So I am delighted to be coming at the end, as so much of the wisdom that I’d like to share is already here. I will let you know that I designed these slides so that they could be downloaded as a PDF if you want them, because I think I’m hoping that there’ll be recommendations on here that will be useful for everybody. And there’s a bunch of resources at the end, so feel free to ask me or Children and Screens for a copy of this. What I’m going to do here is sort of consolidate a lot of the stuff that we’ve talked about today as well as that I’ve learned over the course of time about what seems to matter. This is an area that I’ve focused on a lot. And, you know, starting when technology was first starting to become available as well as sort of what we’ve learned as the science has unfolded in general. And I will recommend and recommend consulting the APA Social Media Health Advisory Recommendations. Those are a really solid set of recommendations that embrace a lot of what I’m going to talk about here and then some. In general, what I’ve noticed is that there are four primary domains of intervention and prevention. These, including, I think, enhancing self awareness on a lot of different levels. And I think if there’s one massive shift that technology has foisted upon us as a population is that our young people are just going to need to be more self aware than they’ve ever needed to be at a young age. And that’s partly because they just are going to have to navigate social media environments that require them to know a lot more about themselves, early warning signs that they’re getting overwhelmed by stimuli and so forth. So that is one big domain. Somebody mentioned earlier assuring social media literacy. That’s absolutely imperative. We know a lot about how media is shaped to affect young people and all of us as users at this point. And we need to be savvy users. Right. And there are fortunately a growing number of affordances and tools for helping families and schools and others navigate this. We also want to be sure that we help parents and anybody interacting with young people around this topic know how to approach it from a connect and engage process and not so much a punishment and control process. And I’ll talk about that a little bit more in a second. And then lastly, we really want to emphasize responsibility and supporting positive norms in a lot of these environments. I know that was touched on a little bit earlier related to Contagion, and it’s really important and it’s something that young people can learn how to do. So I’m going to unpack each of those here in a minute. But first, I want to say that it’s absolutely important that adults enhance their own awareness about what’s going on. And by that I mean like what’s out there? What are the common platforms and features of those platforms? I know it’s tricky because they change a lot. What’s popular changes a lot, and it’s hard for most of us who have busy lives already to kind of stay on top of what various platforms afford and don’t afford for young people, but if you’re a parent and if you’re interacting with young people regularly, I think this is a very important thing to do. In particular, you want to be familiar with the restrictions, the media balance features, the good citizenship rules and practices. These can vary quite a bit. There are, for example, some platforms that allow for easy sending of visual images. We know Snapchat, for example, is very ephemeral, so things can be sent in then and then leave that, but that screenshots can be taken before the image dissolves. So being aware of where young people might get tripped up because of what the affordances are in the platform is really an important part of being a supportive and a contributing adult here. And then also, you know, share candidly about expectations and lessons learned, so what are what are all the different possibilities for starting conversations related to various things that are sort of showing up on the scene? In my family, for example, we’ve had some very interesting conversation about use of VR headsets and the intense stimulation that that can induce, as well as how fun it can be and upcoming shifts related to AI. So let’s talk first about social media literacy. My recommendations here and what’s coming very clearly out of the literature is to focus on understanding safety and privacy. For example, Tik Tok is really public, so privacy is easier to protect. Whereas Instagram makes disclosing private details very easy. I really recommend with some of the best advice coming out of child protection areas is that if you’re working with young people, please help them understand it is not in their best interest to send exploitable images. So sexts, for example. But if they do, then don’t include faces. I think probably some of you’ve seen some of the most recent news reports coming out on, you know, people being blackmailed because they have images of their naked bodies, but with faces attached so that they were easy to exploit. They need to understand the design features in the way they interact with human psychology is purposeful. This has been touched on already a little bit by algorithms. All of it is designed by some of the people who understand human psychology best in the world. Attention is the commodity. So platforms use a deep understanding of human psychology to keep and capture our attention. So the algorithms and the way that we get used by the algorithm rhythms is something that young people really need to understand as early as possible. The tailoring of content and ads to promote more time and money spent is the goal. So that’s where they keep your attention. They want to keep you there and likes highlight reels and their and all the other features that deliver high salience reward and you know, neurochemicals are also designed to keep people there. This is one of the things that young people really need to understand. And I know it’s tough for, say, a 13 year old or sometimes younger who are starting on social media to understand the ways in which these very complex, mature systems work. But I think as parents and responsible adults, we need to begin the conversations early about that. And then they need strategies for discernment of misinformation or negative information. It’s increasingly difficult and the role of AI in producing all of this here in the now and in the future is going to make it increasingly even more difficult. But to the extent that they can learn how to detect misinformation, and then how to recognize and intervene in negative online behavior like cyberbullying. There’s a whole segment in a number of media literacy programs that I’m aware of that are focused now on helping people be good upstanders in virtual environments, which is part of what we’re going to need to help people do in order to create positively valenced places. In terms of connecting and engaging, we recommend asking open, honest questions and having regular check-ins. And then in the next page, I have a number of conversation starters that I’m not going to go all the way through, but I’m hoping that if you do receive a PDF of this, you’ll have them on hand. Use teachable moments in media to support reflection and conversation. In my household, when the documentary Social Dilemma came out, we had some fabulous conversation about online, you know, sort of the nature of our on and offline life as a family. To choose connection, engagement whenever possible. So this comes up when a young person might do something online, send an image or engage in bullying behavior not just as a victim, but potentially as a perpetrator. It’s really helpful if caregivers and other adults approach this from a connection perspective. So you’ve done something you regret. Let’s figure it out together. Using taking away devices or disallowing the connection that happens online as a punishment does not help us promote a lot of responsibility and then help youth learn how to manage with targeted interventions. So there are apps that they can use like Rescue Time and Freedom. And at the end of this presentation, I have a number of other apps that might be useful. Setting limits as a whole family. So no phones at the dinner table or after a particular hour and then limiting phone time without eliminating and focus engagement unplugged ways. So basically, if we can separate some of the best punishments I’ve seen, punishments or the consequences of negative behavior online that I have seen parents do is not take away the phone but really really limit it and instead say what you know, you can choose between 3 hours of working with me in the garden or helping grandma mow the lawn or something that promotes the engagement that we’re hoping that they get offline. Not going to go through all these conversation starters, but these are the things that I have found in my family and other families that I’ve worked with that really do promote positive conversation. The ones in bold are those that I think could work really, really well, especially with younger young people or middle aged or middle adolescence where they’ve started to use devices. But are just beginning to formulate ideas about them. There are a whole host of other conversation starters that are generally asked as open, honest questions, designed to promote conversation and connection, not so much judgment. And then one of the last pieces is to emphasize responsibility and supporting positive norms online. This has come up multiple times already here. We want to help youth recognize and respond to cyberbullying and other asks of online harassment, monitor their own behavior and make adjustments as needed. We often assume that our kids may be victims, and that’s true, but the reality is there’s a pretty strong connection between being a victim of cyberbullying and being of and of being a perpetrator of cyberbullying. So helping them understand that line as well as where some of their behaviors may not have been completely healthy in terms of promoting a good, healthy environment is useful. Helping them notice red flag feelings that may alert them to an unhealthy environment. This is really important because they do need to understand what they feel like, what they start to feel like when the scrolling has gone from being connective or uplifting to sucking away energy and time. And there is typically an inner feeling that they can learn to identify. But if they don’t know that it’s there, then they often all of us just pass right over it and then you start to spiral. And then lastly, cultivating a sense of civic responsibility that transcends anonymity. Basically, help them understand that there are humans behind every single post, and all of those posts have humans that have feelings. And then this is the last one is to enhance self-awareness. So we talked about the red flag feelings. Those are the feelings we just talked about a minute ago. But we want them to be able to discern when are they feeling overstimulated and when are they starting to engage in the processes that we know that tend to negatively affect mental health online, such as avoidance, negatively comparing or using social media as avoidance, rather negatively comparing oneself to others and knowing when social media helps them feel better or worse about just having a in a better or worse mood that day, or having and having experiences a fear of missing out. Making sure that they’re doing healthy content creation and curation, who they follow, how it makes them feel, and whether or not their feed is full of things that are ultimately going to make them feel like they’re not nearly pretty enough or good enough in the world. Or is it full of things that make them smile and feel uplifted and inspired. Know and practice behavioral disengagement techniques? I think this is, in my experience, the most difficult thing for people to do, especially younger adolescents. So how do they disengage when they know they need to get off? Willpower is a tough thing to cultivate, but it is something that we really need to help them with and knowing that there are techniques and apps and other things that they can use, it is typically a good first start. And then, of course, paying attention to positive media balance. Where does this fit in in a whole life? Make sure that sleep is happening and protected is probably the most important thing that we can do because sleep is such an enormous contributor to pretty much everything and that they have regular engagement in nature and with family and friends. Then the last thing I want to say is developmental scaffolding is really important. So not everybody needs the same thing. As people that age, they’re going to need more autonomy. We as parents and caregivers to young people can assist them at different developmental stages to understanding sort of the nuts and bolts. Then, you know how to use features and then how to reflect on their own behavior as they get older. Lastly, there are a number of really wonderful ways that digital media can be used to support mental health, and these are just some of the things we’ve already seen. This is not, you know, social media and and all that comes along with technology is an invitation for us to grow as humans, I think. But it is going to require more discernment. So I’m going to go ahead and stop there. But I will invite people to get a PDF of these because I do have a number of references as well as tools included.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Janis, thank you so much. That was so incredibly helpful. Before we transition to a group discussion, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your presentation, if that’s okay. And in the meantime, encourage folks who are on to put your questions directly into the Q&A section of your zone. But Janis, you know, one of the things that I’m not sure all folks are as aware of as you are is the extent to which there are sites, videos, things online that that not only discuss things like self-injury, but but actually explicitly they teach kids how to do it and how to conceal it from their parents. Can you say a little bit about what some of these sites are like and how much you think that remains a concern?
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] Oh, it’s definitely a concern. Thanks, Mitch. People need to be aware that there’s a lot of very explicit information out there about how to hurt yourself one way or another. And I think that’s, you know, that becomes part of the self-awareness piece. I think that places that we really need to pay attention to as families are have we created environments in which our young people are going to talk to us when they start to encounter material that they find disturbing or that they find themselves attracted to, but they don’t really know why. I think that’s one of the reasons why creating environments for open conversation is really important.
But parents do need to know that if your child is vulnerable to things like self-injury, that non moderated sites where people gather and share tips and techniques and self-injury do exist. And if you’re seeing an uptick in your child’s either symptoms of depression, anxiety or self-injurious behavior, if you know what to look for, then it’s really, really important to have conversations about where people are going and what they’re doing online. And if you can’t have it in the family and if your child is a therapist, then that’s a good place for that conversation to happen as well.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] So what can a parent do if their child won’t talk with them about what they’re doing online, but a parent suspects or is worried that maybe they are visiting some of these sites, what would you recommend for how parents can get more information and protect their kids?
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] Yeah, it’s such a great question and I wish there was an easy answer. What I’ve noticed works the best are two things. One is if you have a child who is in therapy, then that’s a conversation I have with a therapist around your concerns, because the therapist will probably be able to figure out strategic ways to have those conversations within that larger environment. And then, you know, as most parents who have kids in therapy might know, you can’t necessarily get a lot of details about conversations, but the therapist can often tell you whether or not it’s something they feel worried about after they’ve explored it. The other thing is mentorship, and that came up or mentorships growing where they came up earlier. But like, older siblings or older friends who may be able to have conversations and go places that you can’t as a parent. I used that a lot when I was a parent of adolescents. Are there people who can explore those questions if it’s not you? And then becomes the question of how can parents be supportive in response to the knowledge that they may get back? But that’s kind of a separate conversation.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you so much and welcome back to all of our panelists for a group discussion. I wanted to thank you so much for the wonderful presentations and also kick us off by asking, you know, imagine that you have been asked to consults with the federal or State Department of Education, you know, in your where you live and you can help guide what it is that kids are learning about this new digital media world that they are going to be raised in.
And it’s not going anywhere. Right. What right do you recommend for even the elementary or middle or high school level? What are the kinds of things you would want kids to be taught in school, if anything, if you think that that would be appropriate at all.
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] I will quickly go, even though I just went. Which is that we need to start. I mean, there is almost very little conversation happening I think in most elementary schools, even middle schools and even high schools. So if there’s ways for us to build in especially media literacy as well as the self awareness pieces into curricula, that’s where I would go first.
[Vicki Harrison] I could just add to that. I mean, I agree. I think it needs to be more prevalent than it is. It’s not in every school curriculum. And I think when it does exist, a lot of it is really focused on individual literacy, which is important. But I know from the program that we started with young people, like part of that is to fill the gap that exists around just letting them sort of brainstorm how to deal with some of these interpersonal conflicts and challenges that they get into on social media. Because, you know, it’s an interpersonal environment for them. It’s just in technology. And so, like, there’s no real straightforward road map for some of that. So they need spaces where they can have supportive mentors and adults that are helping them navigate. Oh, so you got this harmful message from someone that you don’t know. How can you navigate that? How can you deal with that and respond? Should you respond? You came across something you didn’t want to see. What can you do? So I think some of the skill building and just like letting them sort of process it because not always talking about it with each other.
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] I think it’s also really important to not only kind of focus on the risks and the harms, but also acknowledge those kind of big opportunities that are available to people, social media as well. I think it can be quite off putting or even stressful for young people to be kind of constantly told that one of the main activities they enjoy is kind of a bad use of their time, wasting their time. And so I think we do need to be careful that we present a kind of balanced view when we’re talking to people about social media abuse and mental health. And I think any also touched upon or maybe Vicki touched upon as well, that importance of these kind of peer led initiatives. You know, young people are much more likely to absorb the information if it’s shared by peers rather than teachers who have no experience of using Tik Tok, for example, you.
[Dr. Annie Maheux] Yeah, just to follow up, I agree with everything all the other panelists have said, and I think everything that Janice just shared should be taught in schools to provide teens with teens and children with all the information that they need. I think one thing that Janice mentioned, but that I just want to reemphasize, is that I think teens have a really hard time conceptualizing this idea of the attention economy and that social media is really not designed to benefit them. And that’s something that’s really different than, you know, a lot of other products that they might be buying as they gain autonomy. And we know that autonomy is something that teens are that they really, really value this idea, that they’re able to make decisions with this kind of autonomous worldview. And so the idea that social media companies are trying to exploit them is something that I think they want to know, and that bothers them. And also one other thing that I’ll add is that there are a lot of resources out there. There are curricula that are designed for the school context. And I think that as researchers, we’ve tried to design those, and I don’t know that we’ve done a great job of actually connecting with educators to get those materials to the schools. So, for example, common sense media just came out with a bunch of well designed slides, they have activities that can be implemented directly in classrooms of different ages. It’s called Common Sense Education is kind of the sub page. And so for educators who try to seek out those materials and as researchers we’ll try to get those out to educators as well and implement what is already created, I think would be important.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you for mentioning those resources. Are there other resources that people want to mention specifically so listeners can go ahead and look those up?
If you think of any, please feel free to share them as we talk.
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] The common sense media is where I often send people to. And Mitch, the book that you guys just wrote is really good. I mean, you know, it’s really high literacy levels in terms of being able to understand information, but there’s a ton in there as well as the the work you guys did with the APA on recommendations.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Thank you. So let’s talk about elementary school kids a little bit as well. You know, digital media is going to continue to exist and there will be ways that people can establish some kinds of relationships on digital media, but what do we want to teach young children about relationships and about relationship building skills and which of those you can get online and which of those might be harder to get online. So we want to be aware and we want to teach kids to understand the difference. Any thoughts, Thoughts about that?
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] I think one of the things that we need to kind of support young people to kind of reprioritize what’s important about friendships is, you know, kind of maybe deprioritizing some of that focus on the need to be available all the time. You know, that could be a real source of stress for young people. Is the expectation that they’re available to respond to a message immediately or to respond to a message, you know, 24 hours a day and I’m not sure how we do it, but is it kind of, you know, having those conversations with young people and that that’s that’s not an essential part of a friendship or that’s not what’s what should be considered most meaningful in a friendship?
[Dr. Annie Maheux]Yeah, I think to Lizzie’s point, there’s so much about kind of just basic social skills and social competencies that young people learn that we kind of pretend like the digital context is entirely different. And although digital media does transform the way that teens or teens and children are engaging with their peers, I think teaching basic sort of empathy and pro-social skills. Janis mentioned this, that those skills, if we’re really emphasizing those on, can be applied to digital contexts. And we just have to be, I think, direct in teaching children how to take those skills and bring them online.
[Vicki Harrison] I think also modeling the behavior which, you know, we as parents don’t always do as well as we could. And I know that even some young people have started to try to take back a little control and they’ll have, you know, agreements like if they’re going out to dinner together, that they all put their phones down. So I think there’s things like that that we can start putting into practice that will then maybe become more common. And we also just all shared the experience of surviving a pandemic, which, you know, it was a experiment in what if our worlds are all online all the time. And I think none of us would want to sign up to go back to that world. As much as, you know, we survived and there were some benefits to that. So I think we learned lessons that we can then share with like, why did you still want to, you know, meet face to face with your friends? What was missing? Like, we still want that interaction. And so how can we remind ourselves that that’s important?
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] I was going to quickly. Vicki, that’s really important pieces like helping. I think a lot of people think that the social stuff that they do online is the same as offline in the sense of in terms of the skills that they learn and that’s not true. We all know that. It takes a different set of skills to be in front of somebody without your phone with a face and you know, you’re interacting in real time, just helping them understand that there are differences. You need skills in both areas and that we need to develop a life that’s balanced across different kinds of social interaction possibilities. And then when you’re online and it’s anonymous, especially in your own spaces, you’re not with your friends, please remember that everybody there is human. All those comments that you’re seeing are people and they have feelings and still the impact still matters. I think it feels pretty blunted to a lot of us when we’re especially young people interacting online in ways that we would say things we would never say to somebody, face.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] So we’re talking about depression and self-injury today. Of course, science tells us that one of the biggest predictors of depression or worsening of depression for those already experiencing symptoms is social isolation. And one the best treatments for depression is what we call behavioral activation or, you know, in simpler terms, getting kids out of their rooms or homes and actual face to face engagement and exercise. Can you talk about the kinds of digital media use that might be safe and the kinds of digital media use that might be more concerning if someone is depressed or at risk for depression? Because we don’t expect that people will never touch their devices, but we can think about how to encourage the best kinds of uses if they’re experiencing or at risk for depression. Any thoughts?
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] I’ll come in real quickly, because my daughter struggled with this when she was in 11th grade. And one of the ways I found that our devices were really useful is that there were things she could say in text that she would not tell me at the moment as a 16 year old. And so we developed a set of sort of code emojis that was like, you don’t you won’t even have to use a lot of words. Just an emoji check. And so I could have a little question mark and she’d send me an emoji that gave me a sense of how she was doing right at that moment. She might only be upstairs, but I think that kind of use, you know, it’s like a commute, a true communication device that can sometimes transcend the limitations or the vulnerabilities that we might feel if face to face. That’s one healthy way to use technology in my mind for depression.
[Dr. Annie Maheux] Yeah, I would definitely agree that I think the greatest benefits of digital media are to actually connect people in meaningful ways. And it’s been stated that the purpose of social media is to promote connection. But I think a lot of what happens online when people are posting publicly or they’re kind of passively scrolling and not actually having these meaningful connections, I think those experiences can lead to greater isolation. But it’s really when teens are maybe in a group chat with close friends, they have healthy and respectful relationships that they can invest in using both of those platforms and as much as possible offline experiences, really having that sense of like a strong social connection, a strong social bond are the best ways that I’ve seen for teens to use social media,
[VIcki Harrison] I will just add that any sort of environment that’s safe, you know, usually that means moderated or, you know, have some moderation to it where they can create. And there’s a lot of identity exploration that happens in adolescence. I mean, that’s one of their main jobs is trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. And a lot of the benefits of media is exploring the different ways that they can be in the world and how other people look. And so if they can do that in a way that’s supportive and there aren’t encountering people, you know, hating on pieces of their identity that they want to express that can be really beneficial. And so as much as they can explore that in a safe way and create and have that received well, it can be really beneficial.
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Yeah, I completely agree with what everybody said and just really acknowledging that social media can be this kind of positive space where people can hang out, which can be a huge benefit where if young people might have kind of limited opportunities for in-person socializing. So that might be because of the Covid pandemic, but it might also be for financial reasons or because of geographical constraints or or disabilities. And, you know, going back to the previous point, we really did see this during COVID where young people who were most adept at and most kind of confident and able to use social media to socialize, those were the ones who were kind of most protected from the effects of social isolation.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] So, you know, it’s interesting that several of you talk about pandemic times.
It was during the pandemic that someone coined the concept of doom scrolling, that kind of passive digital media use. And, you know, immediately people could relate to that idea. They could self-monitor and recognize, wow, I think I do that and I recognize why that’s harmful. And there were even things that popped up, whether they were user generated or platform generated online that said, Are you doom scrolling? You should stop right now as you kind of scrolled right past it in your and your feed. And it really spoke to a remarkable way that we can monitor and improve this ourselves, you know, even without legislation or changes in the companies, you know, What do you think about that? I don’t hear people talking about that as much anymore, but it still does seem to happen. And if not doom scrolling, are there other kinds of behaviors or or habits that, you know, we would love for teens to recognize in themselves and start talking about amongst themselves? Monitor. Correct. Among themselves? Are there other behaviors you wish that teens were noticing about their own experience in that way?
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] Yes, I would love for them to notice when they are using it to avoid things that they don’t either want to do or feel. So a little bit of distraction for a few minutes, I get it. But, you know, if you can recognize that, that’s why you’re going there and that’s why you’re continuing to go, that would be huge.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Great one.
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Definitely. I think loads of the points that Janis shared in her presentation really fit to that kind of awareness and mindfulness of your own social media activities and the motivations as well. You know, why are you sharing a picture of yourself that’s been really kind of heavily edited before you feel confident to, to share it and you know, who are you following and why are you following those accounts? Are they making you feel good? You know, it’s all about that kind of mindful activity rather than, like you say, just kind of passively scrolling through content.
[Dr. Annie Maheux] Yeah, I think another one, too, is that a lot of teens are really invested in the number of likes or these like quantifiable metrics of peer approval that they receive online. And I’ve heard directly from teens that they engage in all sorts of behaviors to try to get more likes. I’ll post something. If it doesn’t get a lot of likes, delete it right away and. And this kind of intense investment in these metrics that maybe is actually not a great proxy for things like peer relationships and quality of friendships. If teens are able to kind of think critically about their motivation for posting things and seeking out this kind of online status, I think that could help them also engage in more beneficial ways.
[Vicki Harrison] Yeah, I was going to say the exact same thing as Annie has said it really well and you know, even like friends will reach out and text and say why didn’t you like my post yet. Right. Because it there’s just like this bartering status thing that and it puts pressure on people and you can’t you know you’re not in control of your own experience when there’s all these expectations. And also I think someone spoke earlier about just like the immediacy of our online environment and how, you know, you have instantaneous texts and posts show up. And so there’s an expectation that you will absorb it and respond to it right away, which puts a lot of pressure on us, especially young people. And like, you don’t have to, some of us remember when they had like an answering machine and you don’t have to respond right away, but we sort of have to recreate those expectations and norms. We need to do that slowly together. But I wish that young people would feel more empowerment to do that.
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] Some of us remember before we had voice machines, actually, which was something in a conversation we had at one point about young people want to understand their brains. They want to understand the impacts like they’re interested too. So that seems to me that goes back to that need for early education about how the platforms use us versus, us use the platform. So if we can find a way to have those conversations and then help them use the platforms for their purposes rather than having the platform sort of exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities that would be would be great.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Terrific. Because we are talking about depression. There are, of course, folks who would like to know how to spot if their child might be experiencing some signs of depression or might be at risk for self-harm. Any thoughts about warning signs or ways to even start that conversation between a parent and a child?
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] All right, I’ll jump in. So the warning signs are all the sort of classic things that I think probably most people have come across. We’re doing a much better job these days of getting those across. So sustained, persistent sadness, persistent disengagement, especially disengagement in life. If you’re noticing your child is not showing up in the normal way is, you know, to school, to activities, to friends. I mean, they’re going to be moody with you probably because that’s just kind of the way that goes. But if you’re noticing that they’re disengaged from other activities in their life that they typically like, that’s a big telltale sign, especially if it’s persistent. In terms of starting conversations, carefully, without a lot of your own stuff involved, I mean, especially around self-injury. One of the biggest challenges is, you know, to get to register, not to register shock, disgust, fear, anger, especially those, you know, when you when you go to have a conversation, sure, you’re steady, your centered, you’re capable of asking open, honest questions and and have it come from a place of love. Honey, I’ve noticed some things on your body. I’m a little concerned about that. I want you to know that I love you and I care about you. And I want to understand. And I want to help. That’s basically the medical education that you’re going for with that.
[Vicki Harrison] I think this speaks to why it’s important that parents stay connected to what their young people are engaging with online and that it’s okay to monitor in that way. I think some parents feel a reluctance because of privacy or they don’t. They’re scared of what they’re going to find. But, you know, you need to be involved and teach them to get more comfortable and more skills as they grow older, just like you teach them how to cook and teach them how to drive. And so you’re more hands on early on. And so I think if you have that connection, then you can keep checking in with them about what they’re engaging with online. And so if you find that they’re going to things that they didn’t used to go to, that you know where it is a darker topic or they’re ruminating on something like those can be warning signs as well. So I think just staying connected is important just for this preventive reason.
[Dr. Annie Maheux] And I’ll add, I’m not a clinician, so can’t answer the question about warning signs. But I think it’s important to remember, too, that teens want to have good experiences on their devices. They’re motivated to go online and feel good. And so coming at those conversations from that kind of shared value of using digital media in ways that promote well-being, I think is important to remember.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] Just before we reintroduce Kris Perry from children’s screens, just want to give everyone an opportunity for any final thoughts or takeaway messages that you hope people can remember and enact as. They leave this webinar and go back to their regular lives.
[Dr. Annie Maheux]Yeah, I’ll just jump in. So I think, you know, as much as we might want it to digital and social media is not going away. And so I think it’s really, really important that we consider both all of these terrible aspects, these costs of digital media, but also keep in mind the benefits and try to nudge our young people in our lives towards those benefits as much as we can.
[Dr. Lizzie Winstone] Yeah, absolutely. And just to add to add on that, that, you know, it’s so important, as others have said, to keep those opportunities, the kind of open dialog available that young people kind of feel that they can approach caregivers if they do experience kind of harmful situations online, that they they know they can go and ask for advice and support without this kind of risk of their phones being taken away for example.
[Vicki Harrison] Yeah, and I know someone said it earlier just that, you know, social media was not designed with the best interests of young people in mind. And we are trying to retrofit it a little bit. So in the meantime, there is a lot to navigate. And so letting young people explore that, supporting them and having those experiences and also, you know, familiarizing yourself with some of those guidelines that we talked about so that it minimizes some of the harm,especially for young people who are struggling.
[Dr. Janis Whitlok] And the last thing I’ll say is we exercise a lot of compassion for self and others because I was going to say we’re guinea pigs. Maybe it’s not quite, you know, but we are an experimental generation. I mean, we’ve never gone through this before. And it’s extraordinary in a lot of ways and sort of human evolution. And there’s a lot of things to be worried about and scared about. On the other hand, you know, as Annie said, we’re not going away. And we can, I think we can learn over time, over subsequent generations to to be with the technologies that we create in ways that are more supportive of our lives. So let’s think that this is a time to co learn.
[Dr. Mitch Prinstein] That’s great. Thank you all so much. Kris Perry and Children and Screens. Thank you all so much for inviting us and for creating such a wonderful forum and all the work that goes into it to allow this great information to go out to folks.
[Kris Perry] Thank you, Mitch. And thank you to the entire panel for sharing your expertise to shed some light on this difficult subject today. Thank you to our attendees as well. If you’re interested in an event on depression that you can attend with your team, our team can add or your team can attend by themselves. We’re co-hosting a workshop with Fort Health on December 5th. It’s called Tools Overrules How to Be on Social Media Without Feeling Sad. A link to register is available in the chat to learn more about the Institute and all things digital media and child development, please visit our website children and screens.org. Follow us on these platforms and subscribe to our YouTube channel. We hope you will join us again for the next Ask the Experts webinar on Wednesday, November 1st: “Youth Self-esteem and Identity The Mediated Self.” Thank you.